REVIEW: The Grudge (2020)

This review was written for Jumpcut Online. You can read the original publication here.

Takashi Shimizu’s supernatural-born horror franchise, which began in Japan in 2002 with Ju-On: The Grudge but was transnationally brought to Hollywood just two years later, supposedly died in 2015 with Ju-On: The Final Curse. Dampened by poor critical reactions but bolstered by somewhat of a cult-following, horror icon Sam Raimi has revived the franchise with The Grudge, who gifts directorial responsibilities to American-born Nicolas Pesce. Branded with a January release, The Grudge seems destined to flatline. Can it shake its curse and reinvent an already established franchise?

Pesce’s The Grudge operates outside of Japan’s jurisdiction for the third time in the series, with the Ju-On curse migrating to suburban America through the surrogacy of Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood), who under the possession of a deadly curse she acquires from Japan, murders her entire family. Single mother and newly-appointed Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) investigates, leading her on a downward spiral of grotesque murders and supernatural disturbances, including the demonic spirits that consume her.

The Grudge attempts to be narratively interesting by transitioning between three different time periods, slotting itself in canonically between the previous 2004 and 2006 Americanised versions. Each of these time periods bring forth their own sub-plot: John Cho plays a real estate agent who is trying to sell the cursed Landers home, and Frankie Faison plays a desperate husband attempting to cure his possessed wife after they inherit the curse. Yet this jumping between sub-plots within a tight runtime of 94-minutes is a daunting challenge for co-editors Ken Blackwell and Gardner Gould, one that proved to be insurmountable. It is clumsily handled, like loose hair strands unravelling from a badly woven French plait. Actors aren’t given the time they need to shine in their roles due to the short time they have to win over the audience, resulting in a worrying lack of characterisation that subsequently removes any sense of dramatic tension.

The scares themselves epitomise contemporary Hollywood’s desire for shock value over the escalation of suspense and tension. The Grudge is truly lowest common denominator horror at its worst, over-relying on unearned jump scares to deliver cheap thrills. Bodies emerging from bloody baths, victims hiding in wardrobes, false senses of security, silhouettes moving in the background, car backseat surprises: The Grudge is a mirror-shot shy of being a showreel of horror tropes. Too often in mainstream horror are we seeing such phoned-in attempts at conjuring scares. Being scared should not a knee-jerk reaction (at least when it’s as heavy-handed as it is here), it should be earned through the creation of suspense and unsettlement. There is a complete lack of atmosphere in Pesce’s vision; his mise-en-scène ugly and uninspired.

If The Grudge exists merely to kickstart a new supernatural cinematic universe, tagging along with the commercial success of The Conjuring or Purge movies, then it has well and truly failed. It offers no canonical blueprint in which to adhere to, nor does it delve deeper into the lore it reintroduces to modern horror audiences. It is bewildering to understand why this movie exists in the first place. Was it the arrival of Sam Raimi, whose name alone could put butts in seats? Or was it the thought of conjuring yet another horror franchise in contemporary Hollywood cinema; a Pavlovian response to potential box-office prosperity?

The Grudge is not scary, nor does it offer anything unique to the horror genre. It is ultimately a mismanaged and completely forgettable experience. Stay at home, as long as it’s not cursed…

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